Monday, October 5, 2015

Dr Church Takes Charge

   We do not know precisely what day Benjamin Church was notified of his appointment as Director General of the newly established Hospital in Cambridge or the day that he assumed his duties. But we know that he was in place and functioning in mid-August from letters he sent to his old friend and compatriot in the Whig cause, Samuel Adams. On August 22nd, 1775, he wrote Adams requesting some drugs. A list of drugs was enclosed in the letter but it is now lost. On the following day, Church again wrote Adams and it is worth quoting that letter (with some editing for clarity) in full. There is no better account of the medical situation in Cambridge in the Continental Army two months after Bunker Hill and the actions Dr. Church took to correct it.

Continental Hospital, Cambrige, Aug 23,1775
 Honoured & dear Sir!
Accept my most sincere acknowledgements for the honour and favour of my late appointment., derived from you my Friend! and the rest of that august body, for whom (abstracted from Self-Consideration) I have ever felt the warmest Devotion, the most heart-felt Reverence: the most acceptable Expressions of my Gratitude, I am assured will be a zealous Application of myself to discharge the important Duties of my Commission
  An acquaintance with the economy of Hospitals derived from a Residence of almost three years in the London Hospitals, made the Task before me very acceptable, but I confess the extreme Disorders in which I found matters upon a closer scrutiny, rendered the attempt to effect a Change a very formidable One; a total Revolution was necessary, to fix upon any Principles at all: there existed near 30 Hospitals, each distinct and independent, and some of them under the Guidance and uncontrouled Jurisdiction of Surgeons who had never seen an Hospital; the demands yon the Commissary General and Quarter-master were so extremely frequent and rapid that they informed me, the Expense of supplies for the Surgeons exceeded all the other Expenses of the Army: a matter so ruinous to the Cause demanded, an instant remedy.
I immediately procured two good Houses in Cambridge, the one already improved as a Colony Hospital, the other a regimental sick-House, a perfect sink of Putrescence, filth and Disease; to these I have since found it necessary to add a third viz the House of the fugitive Judge Lea,
I found little difficulty with the Surgeons of this Colony, for having examined and appointed them, they considered me in the light of a Master or Director before, and readily conceded to my Orders; but I have had much difficulty with my Brethren of Connecticut &c, they viewed themselves as Lords of their little Dominions; each Surgeon had his Hospital, to which the officers submitted as matters of Right, already established by uninterrupted usage, and hugged as a Benefice by each distinct, some Surgeons divided the Regiments with their Col'., their Orders were undisputed at the publick stores: The Officers indeed groaned that Diseases became so grassant, the Committee of Supplies and the Commissary groaned with good Reason that they should never be able to answer the Demands.
a cabal has been formed against me, which now exists in a crumbling situation, I still persevere in demolishing these little Pagoda's, and altho much Art and much malice  have been exercised to discredit the American Hospital, it is now arrived to such a degree of reputation that the Soldiers bless the happy Institution, and several of the Regimental Surgeons are soliciting mates Birth, at the loss of 30/pr Month, to improve themselves in the Practice of the Hospital.
We have now 200 Patients in three Houses, which go under the Denomination of Washington's Hospital, Lee's Hospital and Putnam's Hospital.[illegible] to the Brigade on this Quarter. We have likewise three Houses at Brookline to accommodate Roxbury Camp in which are 170 Patients, but these I am reducing to 2 Houses Loring's and Barnard's which I shall call Ward's Hospital and St Thomas's Hospital in honour of the two Generals on that Quarter.
I should be happy could every purpose be effected agreeable to the Disposition of Offices made by the Honle Congress, with the Allowance annexed to sundry of them. The number of Surgeons I apprehend must be enlarged  to three more.
The Houses at Cambridge now improved for Hospitals are most advantageously situated to accommodate the Camps on Prospect Hill, Mystick, &c. And in the course of two days by which time I hope to compleat the Number of Beds & Slaw bunks [ some type of a bunk bed with straw as near as I can determine], will be filled and will contain about 240 Patients with their proper number of attendants. These Hospitals are not only insufficient to hold all the sick of both Camps, but they are so remote from Roxbury being 6 miles at least, that in many Cases it would be greatly inconvenient, and in case of an Engagement totally impracticable to remove the wounded men so far;
the Houses lately the property of Barnard and Loring are already made use of for the sick, stand very conveniently, and are sufficiently elevated & capacious these will accommodate the Camp at Roxbury, and the disposition of the Surgeons could stand thus: [Church names his seven surgeons] 
I must entreat your Indulgence to mention one or two other matters - the sick thicken upon us so rapidly, that we are obliged to send the Recovering Men too early to the Camps; being obliged to do duty immediately, and being thereby exposed to all Weathers in their weak state, they frequently relapse; 4 out of 5 generally return to the Hospital within a Week after their Dismission. An Airing house, or as 'tis usually called a Convalescent Hospital is a wise and salutary Provision; here the Patients upon their recovery ought to be sent, to be kept upon a half-Diet and tonic medicines, till they have recovered such a degree of firmness, as to be able to do their duty in Camp without hazard - these Houses require nothing more than a good careful Mate or two to attend them, and to be daily visited by the Hospital Physician.........
I must here renew my solicitation to be supplied with Medicines, I will particularly attend to eke out the few on hand, to prevent distress for want of medicines before the rest arrive. 3 lb of Ipecac is our whole stock, for 400 sick men, and great part of them Dysenteries, and no more to be obtained this way. Tow-Cloth for Beds I am much embarrassed for, the stores are exhausted and none can procure as yet elsewhere.
Thus sir, I have led you thro' a tedious dry detail. I know you adopt the generous sentiment of Terence...Homo sum, et nil humanum a me alienum puto*,
this shall be my only Apology; being an Exile and in distress, I am doubly compassionate, I view every Child  of Sorrow as my Brother - nevertheless Sir! I am fortified daily with the glad presage of future and fast approaching happiness, a thorough Restoration to Liberty & Peace. When Shall we commence the song Deo Redemptori [God the Redeemer], when shall we, as we have been wont mingle together 'the Feast of Reason & the Flow of Soul'. **
Your affectionate Friend & Humble Servant
Benja Church junr 
* I am a human being: I regard nothing of human concern as foreign to my interests.
** Alexander Pope, Imitations of Horace
Siege Lines 1776
   This letter is typical Church. The effusions in the beginning of the letter are standard for the eighteenth century even if Church does go a little overboard ( to our modern sensibilities) sometimes. The concluding paragraphs with the poetic quotations are also typical of Church, an educated man of his day with a serious familiarity with the classics and poetry. Church's letters [ those that remain] are full of classical and poetical quotes; and, he is writing to a fellow Harvard Graduate well versed in his Latin.

  But the body of this letter shows a very professional and very capable physician with real executive ability who found a chaotic situation, in which soldiers were suffering, and created a functioning hospital exercising the best possible care considering the limitations of supply and professional knowledge. Indeed, one can characterize some of Church's ideas as modern. For this alone, Dr. Church deserves enormous credit, yet it is totally ignored and/or dismissed.

   Dr Church did step on some toes in setting up the Continental Army's Hospital and those he offended will attempt to get their revenge.


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